An Open Letter to Whomever Lived Here Before Us

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This is our first house. We liked it because it didn’t have a pool (that’s hard to find in Phoenix) and because it was not in a manufactured tract. We liked that it had years under its belt, some personality; strong brick; a single story.

But this house needs leveling.

Tyler asked me the other day if I felt bad for buying a house that a family lost. I don’t feel bad for buying it, I told him. The bank would have owned it whether we were the buyers or not. But I do think about your family a lot.

I wonder how many kids lived here. About whose room was whose. About what the backyard was like before the bank got ahold of a weedwacker. I wonder if you had a garden. Or a slip and slide in the summer. Or fruit trees. We’re starting to paint the outside. Starting to scrape and sand and spackle and sand and prime. It’s a process. A tedious one, unrewarding until the final coat of paint. But we are replacing the peeling layers with a fresh coat, one Sunday morning at a time.

There are handprints in the cement in both the back and front yard. Sydney Marie, 1998. The neighbor said your family lived here for 20 years; that she used to babysit for your youngest daughter. We’re planning to repour the patio. Cracks and fading have taken its toll. But these handprints will stay. They’re part of its character.

I cleaned out the kitchen when we first moved in. Wiped down the inside of the cabinets that had been empty for the better part of a year. The large bottom drawer to the left of the oven kept catching. I reached back and pulled out an oven mitt that had fallen back behind, folded and squished against the rails. I doubt the mitt was sentimental. It was dusty, like it had been stuck back there for a while. I imagine Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies on these stained and nicked countertops. I wonder about the family traditions you made here.

I think about the cracks in the tile floor, the strange fixes you found for the phone wires, whether the fireplace ever worked. I wonder what fell apart. Did your family split up? Did you refinance when interest rates were low and variable? Did you have friends over for 4th of July block parties? Did you feel level?

Every time we try to hang a window blind or a picture or a bike rack, the bubble on our level deceives us. It always takes us more than one try, a new nail, a dollop of spackling, a reboot. The ceilings or the floor or the windows, something isn’t parallel. A fight, a spilled glass of wine and two hours longer than we thought, we can usually find the error, but it always involves a series of concessions.

In so many ways, we’re working to level.